THE LIGHTS THAT FAILED: European International History 1919-1933
by Zara Steiner
Oxford University Press £35, 938 pages

”How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read,” wrote the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus in 1909. A few years later eight million Europeans lay dead in the “war to end all wars” and four empires - Tsarist Russia, Habsburg Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey and Wilhelmine Germany - were destroyed forever. For the diplomats who came back to the negotiating table in 1919, says Zara Steiner, “there would be no breathing space nor moment of repose while the maps were rearranged” and “no way of judging what further changes were to come. The Great War had begun as a struggle between states who were participants in a well-established European system of international relations; it ended with that system shattered.”

How diplomacy failed to rebuild Europe is usually condensed by historians as the slim entr’acte between two tragic, apocalyptic dramas on the battlefield, with the punitive 1919 Treaty of Versailles leading inevitably to Hitler’s capture of power in a resentful Germany in 1933. But in The Lights That Failed Steiner challenges this traditional view, recasting these years as a vital cliffhanger period in which “there were major twists in that crooked path to the new Armageddon”. Passionate efforts at reconstruction, internationalism, diplomacy and economic co-operation were lights whose eventual extinguishing in 1939 was not a foregone conclusion.

Crucially, Steiner divides the interwar years into two distinct parts. The 1920s was an aftermath of the first world war and the 1930s was a prologue to the second, the two decades bordered by the “hinge years” of 1929-33, when the Wall Street crash engulfed Europe in depression. The Lights That Failed, the first of two volumes, is a dazzling account of the diplomatic efforts to reshape the continent in the 1920s, largely by statesmen who belonged in mindset and experience to the 19th century and each of whom brought his own personal character, as well as national pressures, to bear on the European jigsaw.

Particularly heart-breaking is the uneasy rapprochement, and its untimely ending, between French foreign minister - the charming, vague, silver-tongued Aristide Briand, who wafted into treaty meetings such as the tea parties and cruises at Locarno in 1925 in a cloud of cigarette smoke - and his blunt, earnest, deadly pale German counterpart Gustav Stresemann, who dovetailed international diplomacy with desperate visits to the spas of Europe before his death, aged 51, in 1929. This combination of human drama and a broad international perspective, shifting between western, eastern and Atlantic viewpoints, is a governing strength of the narrative, at once providing fascinating detail, balance, and vivid variety of pace and content.

After 1919, more people lived under governments of their own choosing than at any time earlier or later until 1989. Although the creation of new states raised the nationalist temperature in eastern Europe, by the 1920s most European states had stabilised their currencies and were willing to seek co-operative solutions to political conflicts. The League of Nations was a functioning institution that knit together the international community, world disarmament was actively pursued and Briand suggested in 1929 that “among peoples constituting geographical groups, like the peoples of Europe, there should be some kind of federal bond…primarily economic [which] might also do useful work politically and socially, and without affecting [national] sovereignty”.

The European Union in 2005 is not Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors in 1919, but so much history is shaped by geography that still one laughs in recognition here at the persistence of national viewpoints and their stereotypical presentation. Tall, stubborn, self-assured President Wilson sweeps into Paris as the arch-American prig, “inclined to sermonise and to appeal to higher laws”. Convinced that the US has escaped European chaos by providence and clever design, he believes, as Henry Kissinger wrote, “America had an obligation not to the balance of power but to spread its principles throughout the world.” His host, 78-year-old President Georges Clemenceau, “Le pere la victoire”, whose emotional appeals about France’s sacrifice had won the peace conference for Versailles, turns up in square-tailed coats, a shapeless hat, thick buckled boots and suede gloves. A man of the past, he has endured not just 1914-18 but defeat in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war, and his single concern is France’s security - for “only she had to live next to Germany”. Between them, pragmatic wily Lloyd George manoeuvres his divided transatlantic/European loyalties, adroitly pressing the overwhelming British interest in the recovery of trade.

The Germans, fluttering through the “dreamland of the Armistice period”, were shocked at the immensity of reparations demands, but were otherwise better off, psychologically and from a defence angle, than their neighbour-victor France. France had lost a quarter of men aged between 18 and 27, seen its prosperous northern industrial heartland devastated and still lived in terror of an unsquashed Germany, which -with the disintegration in the east of Austria-Hungary and Russia - was strategically better placed than in 1914. Steiner does not dwell on German hyper-inflation of the early 1920s - when Old Master paintings were swapped for bottles of whisky, dinner at the best restaurants doubled in price in the hours between ordering and paying and Reichmarks were carted around in wheelbarrows - but emphasises instead continuing negotiations to diminish the Versailles terms, so that by 1929 Germany was receiving more in US loans than she was paying in reparations.

The global implications of this bail-out, on which pan-European recovery and trade depended, was not at the time clear. But a steady undercurrent here is old Europe’s draining of pre-eminence, long before 1945, to “the giant newcomer” America, while “like Banquo’s ghost, the absent Russians cast their shadows over the peacemakers’ attempted peacemaking”. Steiner’s long, wise view of international relations during the last epoch when western Europe confidently believed itself the centre of the world is compelling reading for anyone concerned with the continent’s past - or future.

Get alerts on Books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article